Saturday, October 3, 2015

A symbol of prodigious tolerance

The narrative strengths of epics and legends lie in their varied renderings, to suit changing times and diverse thinking. 

It is through such individual interpretations that epics not only retain their contemporary relevance but are kept alive across generations. No surprise that there exist as many as 300 versions of Ramayana. As long as these multiple awakenings are viewed without prejudice and subjectivity, these can contribute to enhancing the philosophical underpinnings of the texts. 

Ramayana is not only a story of the saintly Ram, the morally upright Sita, the dutiful Lakshman and the devilish Ravana, but it is as much a philosophical discourse on moral issues as an epic battle between the good and the evil. Ironically, the glorification of war to annihilate the ‘evil’ subsumes subtext of mental tussle its many characters have had to undergo to uphold the fabrics of a so-called ideal society. One amongst them was Angad, who had to overcome moral predicament of supporting Ram, who had killed his father Vali. How young prince of Kishkindam may have negotiated the burning fury of revenge in discharging his duties towards the state, under his uncle Sugriv’s regime who was accomplice in the killing of his father remains a riddle? 

To forget Angad in our understanding of the epic is to be callous with both mythology, as well as history. In The Vigil, translated from the Malyalam modern classic Oorukaaval, Sarah Joseph explores the distress and dilemma of Angad, who had to suffer ignominy and the insult heaped on him by his father’s killers. Not only was there a denial of justice, but the young boy was forced to carry on his shoulders the one who had killed his father. Was that the price Angad had to pay in the quest for building the ‘Ram Rajya’?

By giving a fictional spin to the grand old story, the author offers a comparative assessment of the historical and political dimensions of the three kingdoms of that era – Ram’s Ayodhya, Angad’s Kishkindam and Ravana’s Lanka. Much like in the present, it offers the familiar story of forcible annexation, territorial expansion and political control. Kishkindam was as much humiliated as Angad. Its lush green bamboo forests were destroyed for making quivers, and for meeting the requirements of Ram’s army the region had to suffer an unprecedented famine. 

Angad was firm that war could not bring any greatness to his country. Yet, he was forced to take part in it because avoiding the war could have brought greater misery to his people at the hands of Lakshman. By connecting the events of the bygone era with the happenings of the modern age, the author brings some of the contemporary ethical, social and environmental concerns to light. The unheard viewpoints reflect that there is more in the story than mere song of the victor.  

Notwithstanding his own humiliation, Angad was witness to the shocking humiliation Sita had to go through at the hands of Ram. In responding to her husband’s accusations after the war, Sita had gently reminded Ram that he has only thought of her as a body without a mind. Angad saw the consent to Sita’s fire ordeal as an act of injustice, to which he had become accustomed to in his life. These are fresh interpretations the book raises, some of which may remain questionable, letting the reader get hitherto unheard viewpoints to draw his/her insights on the contemporary relevance of the greatest epic of all times. 

Angad is a peripheral character in the epic, yet viewing the story through his eyes offers radical interpretations of the episodes. Angad found solace in the company of Maruthi who instilled much needed tolerance in his young mind: ‘there is some right in the opposite point of view too’. Much of what Angad might have gone through remains unsaid and unwritten, yet he emerges a gentle, caring and dreaming hero without whom the story of victory could not be completed.

The Vigil 
by Sara Joseph 
Harper Perennial, New Delhi. 
Extent: 287; Price. Rs 350

This was first published in Speaking Tree (The Times Of India) on October 4, 2015. 

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